In recent years an interpretation that might be best described as “emancipationist” has emerged to explain the motives of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party with regards to slavery at the beginning of the American Civil War. This interpretation—advanced by historians such as Adam Goodheart and James Oakes—argues that most Republican politicians at the beginning of the war conceived the conflict as a fight to end U.S. slavery. Remembering John Quincy Adams’s earlier claim that slavery could potentially be abolished as a military necessity during a time of war, these Republicans used the Civil War to seek a quick, deadly end to slavery as soon as shots rang out. In Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865, Oakes argues that “secession meant war and war meant immediate emancipation” in the minds of most Republicans.
Historian Daniel W. Crofts puts the brakes on this interpretation in his new book, Lincoln & The Politics of Slavery: The Other Thirteenth Amendment and the Struggle to Save the Union. In an exhaustive analysis of the secession crisis that emerged following Lincoln’s 1860 electoral victory, Crofts convincingly demonstrates that most Republicans—Lincoln included—had no intention of interfering with slavery where it already existed or turning the war into an emancipation crusade. They made repeated overtures to the South expressing these views, and they even worked to pass a proposed thirteenth constitutional amendment (with Lincoln’s blessing) promising that Congress could not “abolish or interfere” with slavery in the Southern states where it already existed. Crofts offers one of the first major analyses of the “other” thirteenth amendment and proves that the Republican party’s embrace of legal emancipation emerged only when the contingencies of war made the abolition of slavery a necessary element for military victory over the Confederacy.
Lincoln & The Politics of Slavery is broken up into four parts. The first part focuses on anti-slavery thought before the Civil War and the limitations the Constitution placed upon any effort to abolish slavery throughout the country. While a small minority of abolitionists such as Gerrit Smith, Frederick Douglass, and Lysander Spooner argued that the Constitution was an anti-slavery document—particularly the Fifth Amendment’s clause against any person being deprived of “life, liberty, and property”—most abolitionists and less radical anti-slavery thinkers acknowledged that the Constitution protected slavery in the states where it already existed and could therefore do little beyond encouraging residents and political leaders in those states to voluntarily abolish it. The antebellum anti-slavery political movement populated by Whigs, Free-Soilers, and later Republicans therefore pushed to “denationalize” slavery. “Denationalization” called for the federal government to reject all responsibility for maintaining slavery where it already existed, leaving the matter to the slave states themselves. Where the federal government had jurisdiction, however, “denationalization” supporters called for the the abolition of slavery in Washington, D.C., no future slave states to be established from the western territories, the end of the interstate slave trade, and repeal of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act.
The remaining three parts of the book focus on the aftermath of Lincoln’s 1860 election and the effort to assuage the concerns of white Southerners who believed the Republican Party would abolish slavery in the South. Republicans took several measures to address these concerns. Crofts argues that most Republicans believed themselves to be constitutional conservatives. They asserted that their anti-slavery beliefs squared up with the Founding Fathers, who considered slavery a national embarrassment. They hoped to block slavery’s future westward expansion and believed the institution would eventually die, just as the Founders had intended, but at the same time they accepted slavery where it existed and had no intentions of promoting immediate nationwide emancipation as had some of the more popular radical abolitionists like Douglass and Spooner had asserted. Moderate and conservative-minded Republicans like Lincoln even took steps to separate the party from the larger abolitionist movement and expressed their intentions to enforce every law in the book, including the hated Fugitive Slave Act.
Crofts shines in his detailed analysis of the origins of the “other” thirteenth amendment. Conciliatory Republicans like William Seward and Thomas Corwin pushed to have this amendment passed as a gesture to Southerners, particularly Southerners in the border states, to prove their intentions to not touch slavery in the South. Some Republicans even went farther by agreeing to allow New Mexico territory to be organized for the purpose of establishing one or more slave states. Not all Republicans were ready support this amendment, however. More radical Republicans like John Bingham, James M. Ashley, and Charles Sedgwick opposed any amendments or conciliation with the South, arguing that the Constitution should be enforced instead of amended. Lincoln himself encouraged Seward and Corwin’s efforts to gain support for the amendment and expressed his own support for it in his First Inaugural Address, saying that he considered “such a provision to now be implied by constitutional law.” Crofts masterfully analyzes these sharply intense debates within the Republican Party about the extent to which compromise was necessary to keep the Union together.
Another important goal for Crofts is assessing the way historians have previously analyzed Lincoln, the Republican Party, and slavery at the onset of the Civil War. Crofts critiques various scholars throughout the book itself and in a detailed historiographical analysis at the end of the book who have, in Crofts words, produced “history from the heart – history as we might like it to have been” (277). Doris Kearns Goodwin, Harold Holzer, Goodheart, Oakes, and even the writers behind Stephen Spielberg’s blockbuster film on Lincoln are all taken to task for making Lincoln more radically anti-slavery than he really was. Oakes in particular receives a great deal of criticism from Crofts for mishandling primary source evidence and for downplaying the importance of the original thirteenth amendment as merely a “pointless” and “meaningless” gesture to appease angry Southern politicians.
Most of these critiques are fair, but Crofts overstates the degree to which contemporary scholars still view Lincoln as “The Great Emancipator.” Furthermore, Oakes’s scholarship, in the opinion of this reviewer, still does much to highlight how the end of U.S. slavery came about through a gradual, evolving process of emancipation during the war—as opposed to one singular moment with the Emancipation Proclamation—and why a “second” thirteenth amendment in 1865 abolishing slavery throughout the country was so necessary. Nevertheless, Crofts packs many punches in Lincoln & The Politics of Slavery and convincingly highlights the candidness of many leading Republicans in 1860 and 1861 to acknowledge their inability and unwillingness to abolish slavery in the states where it already existed.